From The Court to The Cam: Jackson living dream as Marshall basketball coach

Apr. 15—It wasn't exactly Rucker Park, although in the grand scheme of things it served a similar purpose.

In the small Fayette County area of Harlem Heights, basketball was a common thread and a common bond. And they all gathered at one place to play the game they loved.

Cornelius Jackson was one of them.

"A lot of guys growing up in my neighborhood played it," said Jackson, the new head men's basketball coach at Marshall more widely known as Corny. "A lot of older guys, a lot of guys my age. That was the thing in our neighborhood growing up.

"We call it 'The Court,' at the beginning of Harlem Heights. If you played out there, it was some legendary games out there."

It was there at The Court that legends, indeed, were made. The likes of Tracy Shelton, P.G. Greene and Stuff Lynch developed their games there, formed friendships there, grew up there.

Corny Jackson was one of them.

All it took was that one familiar sound to draw him out of the house and on to The Court.

"The house was in Harlem Heights, Broadway Avenue. The farthest house used to come up and people used to hear the ball bouncing, and we'd look out the window and they'd be like, 'Yeah, we're going up to The Court,'" Jackson said. "By the time we'd get up to The Court, there's 30, 40 people there. And it all started with the bounce of a ball. So everybody played out there.

"(The games) were intense. It's not like it is now. Everybody from my neighborhood could play basketball. Some people may not have played high school, some people may not have played college, but just the neighborhood — they were always good basketball players."

Corny Jackson was one of them. He made sure of it.

"I came up and I used to play with a lot of older guys," Jackson said last week at an alumni function at Calacino's hosted by the Marshall University Southern Coalfields Alumni and Big Green Club. "I was one of the younger ones and I brought my ball with me the whole time. If they didn't pick me, I'd take my ball home."

Even at a young age, Jackson probably didn't have to worry much about not getting picked.

Basketball was his thing. He watched it, he played it, he lived it. He watched on The Court as the likes of Shelton, Greene and Lynch became Oak Hill High School legends.

Not long after, it was Jackson everyone would be talking about. He took his place on the mantle among Red Devils to be named player of the year. He became an impact player at the college level. And, on March 25, he finally realized a dream when he was named the 30th men's basketball coach in Marshall history.

"Wow! Dreams do come true. They do come true!" Jackson said at his introductory press conference. "This is a moment that I've dreamt of since I was a 19-year-old kid sitting in Twin Towers East. Now, I have the honor to stand before you as the head coach of Marshall University's basketball team. How about that?"

They were dreams that had their roots in watching the history of Oak Hill basketball play out.

Shelton and Greene would become West Virginia high school players of the year, Shelton in 1987 and Greene in 1989. They both went on to play at West Virginia. Lynch was the next to carry on the Oak Hill lineage. He, too, was one of the top players in West Virginia and went on to play at Marshall.

"I had great guys to look up to," Jackson said. "When I was young, my dad used to take me to Coach (Jim) Lilly's practices, (with) Coach (Ron) Lewis. I saw the Tracy Sheltons, the P.G. Greenes, the Stuff Lynches. Not including a host of other guys that played for Oak Hill. I always looked up to those guys when I was younger. I wanted to be them."

Jackson played other sports — his baseball career lasted one year — but basketball was his vehicle.

"I played football up until ninth grade," he said. "I was the quarterback. I played all the way from midget league to ninth grade, and in ninth grade guys started getting faster and bigger and started hitting harder, so I put my focus and concentration on basketball."

It proved to be a life-defining decision. The word was out on him by the time he got to high school. The likes of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia were in contact with Jackson, but he stayed true to the only Oak Hill he knew.

His senior year at his hometown school, Jackson followed in the footsteps of Shelton and Greene when he was named the 1996 Player of the Year. He averaged 28.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.8 steals.

"I grew up wanting to be a Red Devil," Jackson said. "That was the thing. I had other opportunities in high school. Oak Hill Academy, places like that reached out to me. I always wanted to be a Red Devil, because I was around those guys. I lifted those guys up as the standard.

"Even though Tracy was older than me, I was chasing Tracy. Tracy graduated in '87, was the player of the year in '87, P.G. got it in '89 and I got it in '96. So in a nine-year span Oak Hill had three players of the year. So I looked up to those guys, Tracy mainly. My dream was just to better than Tracy."

Jackson was recruited by Marshall and then-coach Billy Donovan, who was hired away by Florida. Donovan stayed on Jackson but wanted him to attend a year of prep school. Instead, Jackson opted to sign with Tennessee.

He spent one season with the Volunteers, where he started 20 of 27 games as a freshman until a coaching change led him to transfer. He chose Marshall over Virginia Tech.

Jackson played three seasons with the Thundering Herd under coach Greg White. He started every game over that span and finished his Marshall career averaging 10.2 points and 6.2 assists. He left fourth all-time at Marshall in assists.

After playing professionally overseas, Jackson began his coaching career in 2003. He spent six seasons at West Virginia State, four at Tennessee-Martin (2009-13) and four at Cleveland State (2013-17). Then, he got the call he had been waiting for when Marshall head coach Dan D'Antoni wanted him to join him in Huntington.

Among his seven seasons under D'Antoni, Jackson was part of the 2018 Conference USA championship which sent Marshall to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1987. There, the Thundering Herd went in as a No. 13 seed and defeated No. 4 Wichita State 81-75 for the program's first-ever NCAA win.

In 2022-23, the Herd set a program record for regular season victories with 24.

But D'Antoni was let go after the team went 13-20 this season. Jackson, who last year was named associate head coach, was elevated to head coach.

Jackson is forever indebted to his time learning under D'Antoni.

"He's meant the world to me. He gave me an opportunity," Jackson said. "Even when I got back into coaching, I was trying to get to Marshall. Coach D'Antoni gave me an opportunity of a lifetime. The last four years especially, he gave me a lot of freedom, a lot of say in the program. So I owe a lot to Coach D'Antoni. He's meant a lot to me."

The focus for Jackson now that he'll be patrolling the sideline at the Cam Henderson Center is to hold on to the players who have remained and to make sure the coaching staff has an energy that can translate to the players. Of the offense, he said, "Coach D'Antoni built a great foundation, especially offense. We're playing fast, shooting fast. He's been in the top 15 percent in scoring for nine, 10 years, so that stuff will stay."

The Herd had a player scheduled to make an official visit on Friday.

"We've been working the phones, working the computers ... Just continue to work," Jackson said. "Again, it's different with the NIL, so you've got to figure more stuff out than normal. So we're in the process right now of just trying to figure things out, see who really wants to be at Marshall, see if they're a good fit for us and hopefully seal the deal with a few kids."

In Jackson, recruits will see a man who is true to his roots and who wants to be at Marshall.

"A lot of people say 'dream job, dream job' when they get a job. Ever since I stepped foot on Marshall's campus, it's been my dream job," Jackson said. "I read a text yesterday at the Board of Governors meeting from a guy, he worked with me and I took him out to lunch. This was three or four years ago. He asked me what would my dream job be. He was expecting Kentucky, UCLA, and I said Marshall without hesitation.

"This has always been my dream. I'm ecstatic."